In class, we got swept up in the novelty of Henry Adams’s depiction of Mary as a symbol, her sex, or a force; I think this distracted us from Adams’s deepest concerns. Although he significantly misunderstands the tradition, that would be of no surprise to him, since his primary experience of the Marian tradition is alienation. Of the “highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art,” Adams “knew something of the facts, but nothing of the feelings; he read the letter, but he never felt the law. Before this historical chasm, a mind like that of Adams felt itself helpless” (The Education of Henry Adams, 384-5). While deeply aware of, and overcome by, the Virgin’s significance, he feels unable to access her like the cathedral-builders did - he almost envies them: “illusion for illusion, - granting for the moment that Mary was an illusion, - the Virgin Mother in this instance repaid her worshippers a larger return for their money than the capitalist has ever been able to get” (Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, 96-97). Despite this attraction, Adams hardly seems to entertain any doubt that the “illusion” could be anything else. For him “poetry which was regarded as mystical in its age and which now sounds like a nursery rhyme” has been ruined by objective advancements in knowledge in taste (Chartres, 94). He makes no effort to recover the tradition intellectually because he assumes that cause is lost. At most, he can hope to feel something of what others felt: “we are not now seeking religion; indeed, true religion generally comes unsought. We are trying only to feel Gothic art” (Chartres, 105).
This is not to say that Adams is a devotee of any particular philosophical trend of his day. He doubts the possibility of anyone accessing the truth, so he looks benignly on the apparent flaws of Medieval Christianity: “all theology and philosophy are full of contradictions quite as flagrant and far less sympathetic” (Chartres, 95). The greatest influence on Adams is, at this point, that of modern science. Troubled by new discoveries and doctrines, such as Darwin’s, he struggles to see any true meaning in the world. He sees it as amoral, and he envies the Medievals for their ignorance of this fact. His unmooring is revealed in his inability to understand even his area of expertise, history. Although he tries to “follow the track of the energy” of the Virgin through history, Adams finds that the result “depends more on what is struck out than on what is left in: on the sequence of the main lines of thought than on their play or variety” (389-390). He can identify no causation in history, never mind direction or meaning. We somehow arrived where we are, and that is not a very good thing in his view. In commenting on the architecture, he comments on modernity:
“every day, as the work went on, the Virgin was present, directing the architects, and it is that direction that we are going to study, if you have now got a realizing sense of what it meant. Without this sense, the church is dead. Most persons of a deeply religious nature would tell you emphatically that nine churches out of ten actually were dead-born, after the thirteenth century, and that church architecture became a pure matter of mechanism and mathematics” (Chartres, 102).
Since, according to Adams, this religious sense that inspired Chartres is dead, the human accomplishments of his day must be understood as an uninspired “matter of mechanism and mathematics.” For this reason, he likes the Virgin best of all his forces: “Adams knew nothing about any of them, but as a mathematical problem of influence on human progress, though all were occult, all reached on his mind, and he rather inclined to think the Virgin easiest to handle” (Education, 389). However, this preference is in some sense disingenuous. While he sees the Virgin “looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith” (Chartres, 186), the dynamo is still mysterious and powerful. It frightens him, and it promises an uncertain future. He is overcome by it, and “before the end, [he] began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force” (Education, 380) Although he does not love the dynamo, Adams believes it is alive and the Virgin is dead.
Once it is clear that Adams is responding to a new state in human knowledge, Munificentissimus Deus appears to be almost a direct response. Although Pius XII is writing ostensibly about Mary, he explicitly grounds the constitution in recent history: “Just like the present age, our pontificate is weighed down by ever so many cares, anxieties, and troubles, by reason of very severed calamities that have taken place and by reason of the fact that many have strayed away from truth and virtue” (2). To any reader in 1950, the context would be obvious: Two World Wars, the Holocaust, an economic depression, the rise of communism. Pius XII believes these events were made possible by materialism, and he sees that their horror makes people question whether there is any meaning, any moral force to the universe. His dogmatic definition, while in content Marian, is ultimately a statement about humans and their relationship to the world: “Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective” (42). In addition, Pius XII implicitly responds to Adams’s concerns in the body of the constitution. By grounding the definition in history the liturgy, nearly all of the Doctors of the Church, and the Bible, he demonstrates the reasonability of belief, as well as its constancy throughout history. Where Adams is adrift in a sea of doubt and confusion produced by modernity, Pius XII offers the Church, guided by Mary, as a latter day Noah’s ark:
“Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith—this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship form the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has beene expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians – we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrive” (41).